A symphony of ochre

It's hard to do justice to the unique splendour of Roussillon. You can say that there are 17 shades of ochre daubed across the houses of the village, drawn from the palette of the old ochre quarry next door. But that doesn't do justice to the flamboyant, technicolor glory of Roussillon: the reds, yellows, oranges and pinks that merge one into the other as you wander around the spiralling streets. Or the stunning contrast of the green of the pine trees or the blue sky against the red cliffs.

Roussillon is on a ridge of steep red cliff, as if everything around but the village has been clawed away over the years. If you walk up to the Castrum at the top you get some wonderful panoramic views across the valley to the Grand Luberon, the slopes of Mont Ventoux, and the plateau of the Vaucluse.

Roussillon ochre quarry
Roussillon ochre


As you approach Roussillon you notice that the fields have turned reddish orange, as if you are wearing the wrong sunglasses. The ochre this land is made of is a natural pigment that was used in paints. Roussillon's ochre quarry was one of the most significant ochre deposits in the world.

But times move on and real ochre is no longer in use. This means you can explore the disused quarry which is best described as other-worldly. Perhaps like Mars if it had cliffs and caverns, steeples and ridges. Certainly something very different that you will not forget.

The quarry is a starting point for a footpath that continues for 15km to the Colorado de Rustrel quarry. Colorado de Rustrel is a similarly spectacular natural event. This is a great walk (but bear in mind that the red dust will colour your shoes!)

For all this beauty you pay a price. In the summer, Roussillon is very busy unless you get there early or late. Out of the high season, it is a wonderful place to visit. In the main square are several restaurants with tables on the square or striking views out the back.

Roussillon street
Roussillon pedestrian street


In the 1950s the noted American sociologist Laurence Wylie brought his family to live here for a year, and to observe village life. As a result he wrote the book A Village in the Vaucluse in 1957, a study of the interactions of a small, intimate, and as it was then, a very rural village. It is a charming and interesting book, well worth reading. Note that he changes the name of Roussillon to Peyranne in the book.

You can get hold of a copy of this book here if you are in the USA: A Village in the Vaucluse, or here in the UK: A Village in the Vaucluse.

Roussillon must have more restaurants per head of population than any other Luberon village. Most are clustered around the square near the top of the village. A little lower down, with its dining room sailing out into the ochre void, is the more upmarket David. There is a good choice and you'll find a table to suit your tastes and budget. There is also a great ice cream shop, just as you start walking up the hill towards the ochre quarry and cemetery.

Roussillon village outline


The official story... The ochre of Roussillon is there because of a complicated story to do with the fact that many millions of years ago the Luberon was at the bottom of the sea, and now it isn't. The colour is caused by the mineral goethite (named after the German writer Goethe, who was a keen mineralogist), but just why it causes so many different shades is unknown. For more detail on this and everything to do with ochre production, you can go to Le Conservatoire des Ocres et Pigments Appliqués (Ochre and Applied Pigments Conervatory), which is an old ochre factory turned information centre just outside the village.

The truth... That's the official version anyway. The truth is far more interesting. In the Middle Ages a young damsel named Sermonde was married to Raymond d'Avignon, who was the lord of Roussillon. Raymond spent most of his time hunting, and in the long interludes Sermonde fell in love with a local troubadour (somewhere between a touble-maker and a musician). When Raymond found out about this, he did what anyone would do - he cut the troubadour's heart out and served it to Sermonde for dinner without telling her. And then he did tell her. When Sermonde learnt that she really was 'heart to heart' with her lover, she threw herself from the top of Roussillon. The earth all around runs red with her blood for all time.


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